Year-end Reflections

More than at any other time in my 35+ years of business experience, I have noticed the profound challenges leaders face in honoring their soul (or North Star as I prefer to call it) while performing their roles of stewarding the financial success of their organizations. 

Today, more and more leaders are hearing competing voices dominating their inner conversation in hopes of tipping the balance of power. Through my personal one-on-one executive coaching sessions, I often work with clients to reconcile these tensions. Below are a few of the more frequent, compelling, and often times, simply gut-wrenching inner discussions that leaders face.

(1)   Nurture vs Performance – Often times, leaders struggle with the challenge of balancing the fulfillment that comes from nurturing, teaching, and mentoring employees, and enabling them to reach their potential, which is often at odds with the performance orientation that exists in many organizational cultures. Organizations espouse that talent and their commitment to their employees are their greatest distinguishers; however, this message is not carried though in practice.  Often when the “real business” conversations commence during operating plan reviews or presentations to boards, leadership styles that are more caring, emotional, and less aligned with rational, objective, and efficient styles are perceived as “risky”.

My clients confess that during these times of high pressure, they often feel bulldozed and even violated, but find themselves feeling helpless and paralyzed by fear and anxiety.  On the one hand, they intuit that not speaking up or acting on behalf of their organizations is violating their pledge as servant leaders. On the other hand, they worry that they may be labeled as “too soft”, “wearing their emotions on their sleeves”, “not able to make tough decisions or have difficult conversations”, and subject to a litany of other judgments that may jeopardize their hard work and careers.  One of my clients reported that her sleeping, eating, and general wellness was compromised for weeks as she watched a consultant, selected by her organization’s President, force individual team members to publically, and in the most direct manner possible, tell others what they did not appreciate in them.

Needless to say this exercise in “courageous conversations” backfired, and my client felt resentment and an unsafe environment for weeks after the workshop.  She felt she had abandoned her soul by sitting back and watching the exercise unfold and not speaking up.  Her intuition, upbringing, and values were demanding that she stop the exercise and point out the destruction she and others were experiencing. However, she felt straight jacketed by her organization’s culture that whispered “you will be seen as too soft and not a team player”. In short, this real tension of bringing out one’s heart and nurturing side is often perceived to be at odds with being able to generate results and perform at a high level.

(2)   Personal vs. Professional Relationships – My clients often report that they feel pressure to relate to their work colleagues in a narrow and “professional” manner. However, it turns out that this prism is a robotic and unfulfilling one.  Organizations are not well-oiled machines as some prefer, but a tapestry shaped by human fabric made up of aspirations, fears, anxieties, courage, and numerous other feelings.  In addition, the multi-cultural and multi-generational workforce of the 21st century brings with it a litany of beliefs, cultures, and mindsets. Given that in the U.S., more than 70% of our waking hours are usually spent at work, it would only make sense that we get to know our work colleagues as “whole people” and not as functionaries of their organizational roles. Connecting to others is a basic human need like food, shelter, and physical safety.  When we are forced to abandon this basic human impulse in favor of artificially classifying, categorizing, and judging others, we feel unfulfilled and react in unnatural and destructive ways that may harm others and ourselves.  Getting to know the whole person also makes business sense.

In a recent survey conducted by Rath, Conchie, and a Gallup research team asking more than 10,000 followers what they need from their leaders, they consistently pointed out four areas:

  • Trust
  • Compassion
  • Stability
  • Hope

Notice that these four needs are realized when the leader is able to connect with her followers at an individual level and when they get to know her as an authentic and real person. It is nearly impossible to trust, feel compassion, and invest our hopes in someone whom we don’t really know or connect with. In short, the tension lies in the desire for leaders to be authentic in cultural environments that often times penalize them for doing so.

(3)   Whole Self vs Work SelfWork is a natural and healthy calling. It validates our evolutionary need for productivity and achievement. It is noble and honorable to create better and safer products and improve our societies. However, extensive research on happiness and wellness confirms that work comprises only one of our basic human needs. Leaders are under increasing pressure to borrow from other parts of their lives and invest more time, focus, and energy into work. Many leaders report symptoms of burnout, depression, sleep deprivation, weight gain, drinking, and other unhealthy outcomes. Extensive research documented in “Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion” by Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee shows that rather than constantly sacrificing themselves to workplace demands, leaders must be resonant–combat stress, avoid burnout, and renew themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally if they are going to be able to successfully lead others. In short, this core leadership dilemma lies in the need for leaders to be more balanced, while operating in organizations that often do not provide them the time to do so.

Questions For On-Line Conversation:

  1. Are you facing any of the above mentioned dilemmas in your leadership?  How are you managing them?
  2. Are there other competing forces that you think leaders are challenged by?


1. Rath T, Conchie B. Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Team, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press. 2008.

2. Boyatzis R. McKee A. Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing. 2005.


About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

2 Responses to Year-end Reflections

  1. Kristina DiPalo says:

    Kaveh – the concept of Whole Self is so critical in current working lives. Leaders in particular are being pulled from the ranks of technically gifted contributors and the demand for these people to somehow quickly step into a more evolved role is unfair and potentially damaging to them and their teams. You are right to point out this conflict in the hope that greater attention can lead to better preparation and support.

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